(SIMI VALLEY, Calif.) -- Most of the Republican presidential candidates are gathering in Simi Valley, California, on Wednesday night for the 2024 cycle's second debate in the GOP primary, which has become increasingly dominated by former President Donald Trump.
Like he did with the first debate, Trump is skipping the event at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, citing his hefty primary polling leads and his complaints with the host venue and Fox News, whose sister network Fox Business is moderating.
That'll leave seven candidates on stage, vying with one another for momentum as they seek to close the huge gap with Trump.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, entrepreneur and commentator Vivek Ramaswamy, former Vice President Mike Pence, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum all qualified, while various other hopefuls, like former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, didn't make the polling and donor thresholds.
Here are five things to watch for as the candidates square off again:
Can Haley and Ramaswamy keep themselves in the spotlight?
Haley and Ramaswamy both garnered positive reviews after the first primary debate last month, according to a FiveThirtyEight/Washington Post/Ipsos poll of likely GOP primary voters. Haley touted her conservative bona fides while pitching herself as an accomplished leader rather than a provocateur, while Ramaswamy sought to go toe-to-toe with other candidates to burnish his outsider credentials.
The second primary could offer them a chance to maintain a key asset: momentum.
"You need to have a strong night, and you can't fall off the stage, literally or figuratively, at the debate. Both of them have to perform as well as they did or better," said New Hampshire-based GOP strategist Dave Carney.
However, their performances last month could inspire other candidates to step up their games on Wednesday night and possibly direct barbs specifically their way.
"Just take Nikki Haley, who did a great job at the first debate. I think all the other contenders think, 'Well, holy moly, I gotta do the same thing.' So there will be a lot more people who are much more proactive, much more assertive -- some of them, than they were the first debate," Carney said.
And for Ramaswamy, who has drawn the spotlight but raised eyebrows for mixing it up with other candidates while calling for broad overhauls of the federal government and advocating a Trump-like platform, GOP strategist Bob Heckman said voters may be looking for added policy meat on the bone.
"I think Ramaswamy, in particular, people want to see what the second act is. The first act was basically being a contrarian to everybody on stage. What comes after that in terms of substance?" Heckman said.
Can DeSantis and Scott change their narratives?
DeSantis, who has bounced from second place in some New Hampshire and South Carolina polls for the first time in recent weeks, has battled constant speculation that his status as the main Trump alternative is at risk.
And Scott, who was thought to be rising before the first debate, appeared to fade into the background at last month's event, with relatively little speaking time and tepid marks from likely voters in the post-debate poll.
It's unclear how much their strategies will change ahead of the Wednesday debate, though Scott has started to go after other candidates more by name.
"For DeSantis, it's critical. I don't think he can afford to have a second straight flat debate," Heckman said. "And I don't think he was bad in the first debate, but I don't think he excited anyone, and he needs to show some personality and some willingness to mix it up with the front-runner. And I don't think he showed that in the first debate."
"I think Tim Scott continues to be a curiosity. People look at him and say, 'Sounds good, and I want to know more about him.' If you look at his recent appearances, Tim Scott's been much more combative, much more forceful," Heckman added. "I think Scott has got an opportunity to really emerge in the second debate."
However, other strategists said that one debate is not enough to change perceptions of the candidates after months of campaigning -- particularly without Trump on stage to go after directly.
"Scott and DeSantis are likely who they are, and voters won’t come away with a different impression," GOP strategist Rob Stutzman said.
Shutdown, immigration could loom larger
Policy wise, strategists predicted that an approaching government shutdown and immigration are likely to dominate discussion on stage Wednesday night.
Moderator Stuart Varney told Variety that "we are going to go over all the issues, and that’s what the audience wants."
Republicans in the House have been unable to pass their own spending bills amid fierce infighting between Speaker Kevin McCarthy and hard-liners on his right flank who are demanding steeper spending cuts.
Republicans on and off Capitol Hill are also seizing on a rise in unauthorized crossings at the southern border to hit the Biden administration on its immigration policies.
"It's going to be the No. 1 topic of discussion, we're a few days from the government shutdown. As of today, right now, there's no plan in place. No. 2 will be the border as the crisis boils over," Carney predicted. "I think things like Ukraine and other things may come up, but only in context of the spending in the budget, which will all be part of the government shutdown conversation. And I'm sure the moderators will try to interject other issues, but I don't think voters are really caring about anything else but those two things right now."
Varney told Variety that their focus for the questions won't just be "the economy. That may be the most important issue in the category, but there are other subjects involved here."
With few of the candidates currently holding federal office and many making calls to clamp down on the border, it's unclear how much differentiation will emerge on the subjects of spending and the border.
"Immigration likely gets airtime, but they'll all sound the same," Stutzman said.
How much traction does the counterprogramming get?
While the debate will be the main event on Wednesday, the candidates on stage will have to at least partially share the spotlight.
Trump is set to speak in Clinton Township, Michigan, one hour before the debate begins. The speech is ostensibly about the ongoing United Auto Workers strike, whose members the former president is trying to court, but Trump has a longstanding reputation for lengthy and thematically meandering speeches.
Trump sought to counterprogram the first debate with an interview with Tucker Carlson on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.
Meanwhile President Joe Biden will start Wednesday in San Francisco after a campaign reception Tuesday evening before holding another campaign event later in Arizona.
"Trump gets attention no matter what he does. And so, I think it'll get some attention, but I think that most of the attention will be on the debate," Heckman said. "I don't think Trump loses a thing by not being in the debate, but I don't think he can avoid the fact that coming out of the debate, there's going to be talked about who has a good debate, who doesn't."
Is this the last time the stage is this big?
The stage only shrunk by one candidate after the first debate, with Hutchinson failing to qualify for Wednesday's event. But strategists predicted there will be a bit of culling by the time the third debate rolls around in November.
To qualify for that event, candidates must poll at least 4% in two national polls or at 4% in one national poll and 4% or one early state poll from two separate "carve out" states approved by the Republican National Committee: Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.
That’s a 1% jump in polling from the second debate’s requirements, where a candidate needed 3% in three national polls or 3% in two national polls and 3% in two early-state polls.
Candidates will also need a minimum of 70,000 unique donors -- up from 50,000 for entry into the second debate -- with at least 200 unique donors per state or territory in at least 20 states and/or territories.
"I think, potentially, the Reagan Library will be the scene of a massive killing field, and I think you'll see a number of people not make it on to the third debate, which is what the contenders really need," Carney said. "You need to have as clear a field as possible s that instead of people writing about eight or seven people, they're writing about four or five, and then hopefully that narrows down."
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